You are excused for oscillating between the primal urge to emit sudden noises — a gasp when LeBron James wins for Kobe Bryant, a howl when another Tampa Bay lab clone rocks Aroldis Chapman, a groan when Tom Brady wants a fifth down — and the unavoidable disgust that the NFL is treating players like medical rats. Celebration is what sports does best, whisking us from whatever’s bothering us to crown champions and pity also-rans, but there remains a pandemic-era awkwardness of placing too much importance on winners and losers.
Yes, James has won the Bubble, conquering the most arduous mental challenge ever faced by an all-time athlete with a Lakers team that wasn’t all that great. In the process, he made Our President seethe, lifting a trophy days after Donald Trump eviscerated James as “a hater and “a spokesman for the Democratic party, a very nasty spokesman.’’ Might this be the first of many losses for Trump, courtesy of an all-time sports great and activist who heard the critics last year and ached to quiet them? Didn’t this bring honor and finality to the late Bryant and respect for an embattled, family-feuding franchise?
“We just want our respect. … And I want my damn respect, too,’’ James declared in a mostly empty building at Walt Disney World, home of a weird but fulfilled dream.
Baseball is a story, too, with the Rays ready to wow America as low-revenue savants who just might hit a historic trifecta: trolling the fallen behemoth Yankees with “New York, New York’’ lyrics, teaching the cheatin’ Houston Asterisks about ethics, then beating the blueblood Dodgers in the World Series. Still, amid the cigars and confetti and restrained revelry, we should have guilty pangs.
That’s because the NFL doesn’t give two snot swabs about the players’ wellness and safety amid its COVID-19 crisis, outbreaks be damned. This is not only my opinion, as stated often here. Now, players are echoing it. “I think outside of here, the people that don’t have to walk in our building — whether it is the league office, whether it is the NFLPA — they don’t care,” said the Patriots’ Jason McCourty, also leery of the players’ union. “For them, it is not about our best interest, or our health and safety. It’s about, `What can we make protocol-wise that sounds good and looks good? How can we go out there and play games?’ ‘’
“My true opinion,’’ said the Eagles’ Darius Slay, “is we shouldn’t have even had (a season) because of what’s going on. It’s a difficult time.’’
And yet, even as the NFL again closes facilities in Tennessee and New England as new positive coronavirus results inevitably pop up, the same corporate defiance prevails: The games are coldly rescheduled, protocols continue to be violated, the league and networks remain fixated on money, and mindless masculinity continues to march on — to the point in college football where a caveman coach, Dan Mullen, wants Florida fans to ignore the infection rates and “pack The Swamp for LSU next week’’ because “I know our governor passed that rule.’’ Jay Z had 99 problems. Gainesville was about to have 90,000 problems, until the school athletic director said otherwise.
The NFL has COVID problems 24/7, with new cases in the Titans’ and Patriots’ camps requiring the league to move around games like ant traps and making me ask again: Why even attempt this madness? It’s stupefying enough that dozens of players have self-isolated, facilities and practices are routinely shut down, and the league suddenly has no idea when or if a $17 billion season will be completed. It’s an absolute mind-blur when every new headline should be accompanied by a scorching Eddie Van Halen riff. But you know what’s most troubling only a month into what will be a long, excruciating slog likely to include a Week 18, if not more weeks?
No one is telling us about the children, the wives, the significant others, the parents, the grandparents, the friends, the people out and about in the community — the potential collateral damage when NFL players, coaches and team personnel don’t take the coronavirus seriously and act as super- spreaders. We know that the Titans have been egregious, with a stunning 24 positive cases. We know that a superstar double whammy, Cam Newton and Stephon Gilmore, has tested positive in New England. We know Patrick Mahomes, face of the league, shared a post-game bro hug with Gilmore hours before his positive test — “like, I have all my career and not even thinking about it … a mental lapse,’’ Mahomes called it — and since has been sleeping in a bedroom apart from his pregnant girlfriend.
We know teams have positive tests every day, whether they are fully transparent about the results or not. We know competitive integrity and fairness is a sham, that quality of play will suffer and defenses will be non-existent as attrition and rescheduling exacts a toll. We know this is not a season to take seriously unless one is an owner, a player or a broadcast executive with a deep financial interest. “Unfortunately, Covid is running rampant in our community,” Packers coach Matt LaFleur said of life in Wisconsin. “All it takes is one guy to infect everyone else.’’
“We’re fighting an uphill battle,” Bills coach Sean McDermott said. “We know there’s a challenge because of how easily this thing spreads.’’
The bigger question is, what don’t we know?
How many other people in this country have been infected — and will continue to be infected — because the NFL Insists on bulldozing through a season of games during a pandemic? Has anyone checked in on Gilmore’s wife and their two children? At what point does the urge to recoup billions, and feed networks with the programming inventory they need to stay afloat, verge on the criminal as Roger Goodell and the owners force-feed a season down America’s throat like cyanide? I, for one, was listening closely when the Patriots’ Matthew Slater described his mindset after his team was forced to fly to Kansas City during an incubation period and play the Chiefs. “A lot of us just wanted to make sure we were healthy and not passing anything along to our families,’’ he said.
So we’re just going to keep doing this dance through October, November, December, January and Super Bowl week in party-minded and pirate-happy Tampa, in a state that largely thinks the coronavirus is a hoax?
Yes, we are, regrettably. Rather than copy the successful NBA and NHL blueprints of Bubbles — in this case, enveloping each of the 32 franchises, including mandatory hotel stays until seasons conclude — the NFL office is locked in a stubborn ego-and-hubris trip. Goodell and his lieutenants are sticking to a flawed plan that could backfire at any time in any facility. They are convinced the protocols are sound and are pointing fingers at players and coaches for the violations, refusing to acknowledge that the league relaxed, too, and reveled in a God complex when September revealed few COVID-19 positive tests. In the Titans’ case, it’s undeniable that players flouted a league edict by working out at a school — and the organization surely was complicit, which should have warranted a forfeiture of at least one game for a 3-0 team dreaming of a Super Bowl. That is, if we believed Goodell’s memo to teams last week: “Protocol violations that result in virus spread requiring adjustments to the schedule or otherwise impacting other teams will result in additional financial and competitive discipline including the adjustment or loss of draft choices or even the forfeit of a game.’’
But rather than hammer the Titans where it hurts, in the standings, the league sided with money and ratings by simply moving the much-awaited Titans-Bills game to next weekend, though a large fine is expected. By continuing to punish teams financially and not competitively, the NFL maintains leverage to keep teams out of Bubbles — oh, think of the huge costs! — and places the entire onus on players, coaches and personnel to avoid COVID-19. The demand, of course, is far from failsafe; as witnessed throughout the league, the comprehensive testing system is imperfect, even on a daily basis, such as when Gilmore tested negative before the game in Kansas City when he likely was infected already, leaving dozens of human beings vulnerable to a spread on the field and inside the Patriots’ two planes. That didn’t stop Goodell from being more bullish, now able to play Big Brother with a new league-wide video system that effectively spies on each facility to see if protocols are followed. Can you imagine this Park Avenue conversation …
Goodell: “I’ve got Tennessee duty again today. I hear through sources that players were at a honky-tonk last night.’’
Lieutenant A: “I don’t trust Adam Gase with his shoelaces, much less protocol adherence. I’m watching the Jets.’’
Lieutenant B: “Gruden is a madman who refuses to wear his mask, so Raiders for me.’’
They can play gotcha all they want. Why would anyone of sound or sane mind think the Tennessee outbreak is an aberration in a league of 2,200-plus players and some 1,500 coaches and support staff? “It takes one guy to go to the grocery store and it’s as simple as that,” said Bills quarterback and early MVP candidate Josh Allen. “You’ve got to hope that guys are wearing their masks and the contact tracers are working.’’ But Goodell is flying blind, and considering he’s capable of bad decisions when he can see, the season ahead is a scary proposition. The virtual Bubbles have a much better chance of working than the status quo. Ask Major League Baseball commissioner Rob Manfred, who wouldn’t be pulling off what has become a compelling postseason without forcing teams into Bubbles this month in Texas and California. The NFLPA would need extra incentives, but the Titans’ outbreak might have changed players’ minds about restrictive confinement. Said Mahomes: “If it happened, for me, I love the game and I know how special this team is, so I’d be willing.’’
In truth, the NFL and college football’s Power Five conferences aren’t receiving enough public backlash about exposing players to danger. When much of America isn’t treating the coronavirus with appropriate concern — starting with the continuing follies of the COVIDiot-in-Chief, football’s powers-that-be can afford to be cavalier and keep playing the games so the billions roll in. Then they trot out their versions of Tony Fauci — in the NFL’s case, Dr. Allen Sills, who says, “It’s critically important that we do not grow complacent in our rigorous application of measures proven to be impactful. This 2020 season, our common opponent is COVID — it’s all of us together versus the virus.”
Unless you’re the Titans, who have adopted a bizarre us-versus-the-media stance when they should be thankful those infected are recovering. “It’s a snap-to-judgment society that we live in today,’’ said quarterback Ryan Tannehill, who also doesn’t trust the testing system. “People feel empowered to have strong opinions and go to extremes without knowing the details of how things went down. I’m of the opinion that you should find out details before you jump down someone’s throat.’’
Though pandemic sports viewership is significantly gutted — even the almighty NFL was down 10 percent heading into Week 5 — enough people are watching to more than keep the lights on at the leagues and networks. If Trump and Joe Biden are the main entertainment on the phalanx of news channels, sports continues to be an effective sideshow. And the games have delivered, whether it’s a close finish or the return of Washington’s Alex Smith from his grotesque broken leg, a glorious scene tarnished when Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott suffered a gruesome ankle injury. This is why the NFL and college football ramble on, figuring enough people are interested — look, Nick Saban thinks Lane Kiffin knew his defensive signals — to keep pushing a dangerous envelope. As I’ve said at least 99 times, football is not played in a Bubble. The NBA season was.
Which allowed James to win his fourth championship — for Kobe, for a Lakers franchise not long ago in disarray, for social justice and, of course, for himself. This one will not make him the greatest basketball player ever, but it will give him peace, going on age 36, that he overcame attrition and emotional fatigue when his younger rivals did not. What are Kawhi Leonard and Giannis Antetokounmpo thinking when they weren’t good enough to even reach the Finals? When twice-fired head coach Frank Vogel, who was supposed to be knifed in the back by assistant Jason Kidd, earned James’ respect — and won a title that rescued the slumping reputations of owner Jeanie Buss and basketball boss Rob Pelinka? Jimmy Butler was LeBron’s equal for five games, but he and the Heat ran out of juice.
“There were times I questioned whether I should be here,’’ James said. “Is it worth sacrificing my family? I’ve never been away from my family for so long. Shout out here to the late, great Steve Jobs. Without him, those FaceTime calls wouldn’t have happened.
“Our ballclub got here back on July 9. It’s October 11 now. This was very challenging and difficult. It played with your mind and your body. You were away from the things that made you successful.’’
But he kept hearing the voices of doom. “There were still rumblings of doubt when comparing me in the history of the game: `Has he done this, has he done that?’ Having that in my mind fueled me,’’ he said.
He also knew that a divided America needed his voice. “Social injustice, voter suppression, police brutality — to have this platform, it’s something you will miss and think back on,’’ James said. “We also had zero positive tests for as long as we were down here — 95 days for myself. I had a little calendar I was checking off. But seriously, zero positive tests. That is an accomplishment.’’
There will be no parades in Los Angeles, where, unlike Florida, the city is too fixated on COVID to issue special event permits. But the Dodgers are inviting fans to Chavez Ravine for a drive-in watch party in the parking lot. Price per car for each game of the National League championship series in Arlington, Texas: $75, with fans allowed to bring food and non-alcoholic beverages. The Dodgers require masks if fans want to use restrooms, which is more prudent than what they’re doing in Arlington, where MLB is only defeating the Bubble purpose by permitting 11,500 fans per game. Are Manfred and Dan Mullen sharing notes?
The dream World Series in L.A. — and for America, really — would be Dodgers-Astros. That way, after three years of organizational and fan-base anger about Houston scamming to win the 2017 Series, the Dodgers would have a legitimate revenge shot, not having to settle for Joe Kelly throwing at Houston batters and making pouty faces. Imagine, Dodger Blue beating the unrepentant liars days before the election. But baseball operations president Andrew Friedman may have been premature in saying this on Sirius XM radio: ““Like, I get that it’s been a difficult year for them, but to play the victim card, I think, has been, you know, a curious strategy.’’ See, loaded as the lineup is, the Dodgers still have Kenley Jansen issues. And not having an established closer could be trouble against the Braves and their mashers, accompanied by a pitching staff that has thrown four postseason shutouts.
Inside quiet ballparks such as San Diego, site of the American League championship series, at least the Astros can say they don’t need to steal signs and bang trash cans to win. A formidable lineup makes contact and puts pressure on pitchers, with Carlos Correa in MVP form. And they aren’t gloating as much, refusing to rip critics like before. “Absolutely not. We’re motivated because we want to win,’’ Correa said. “We want to bring another championship to Houston. We know what it feels like, so we want have that feeling once again. 2017 was such a special year celebrating with the fans in Houston. The thing that motivates is to get to feel that again.’’
Ugh. No longer armed with Gerrit Cole and the injured Justin Verlander, the Astros will be underdogs against the Rays, who manufacture victories with skilled starting pitching, a fireballing bullpen and typical Tampa creations such as Cardinals castoff Randy Arozarena, a Cuban defector who spent his own COVID quarantine doing 300 daily pushups and adding 15 pounds of muscle. The result has been a Mr. October transformation, his power bat spooking the Yankees. The conquering hero is Mike Brosseau, an undrafted find who symbolizes the Rays Way. Remember when the snarling Chapman almost beheaded him in September with a 101-mph heater, which led to counter threats by manager Kevin Cash? On the 10th pitch of an all-time at-bat, Brosseau sent a 100-mph pitch over the fence, giving the small-market Rays their latest triumph over the pinstriped colossus.
As the celebration continued in fan-vacant Petco Park, first baseman Ji-Man Choi was kicking over and stomping on a recycling bin. Hello, Houston. You have a problem. Might the Rays join the NHL’s Lightning in a Tampa Bay title perfecta, pandemic style? Brady and the Buccaneers would love to join the fun, but last we saw our ageless wonder in Chicago, he was raising four fingers after his final incompletion, trying to trick the officials into giving him another try. Is that how desperate he has become with a team battling penalties and injuries? “When you’re 43 years old, as you start to get older, it becomes harder to come back from these types of games,” Fox analyst Troy Aikman said. Brady says he doesn’t miss the cold weather of New England, calling himself “a Floridian for as long as I can envision now.’’ At this point, with Brady throwing clipboards and Newton recovering from COVID, the Great Brady-Belichick 2020 comparison debate is on hold.
It could be our grandest sports memory of 2020 is Rafael Nadal in Paris. Not because he won his 13th French Open title and 20th Grand Slam event, which places him a tie with Roger Federer for most all-time, but because he provided precious dignity. He beat Novak Djokovic, the ugly man who threw a summer COVID party and infected himself and others, then was tossed from the U.S. Open when he whacked a ball in frustration and struck a linesperson in the throat. But it was Nadal’s commentary on the global mood that will stick.
“The feeling is more sad than usual,” the Spaniard said. “Maybe that’s what it needs to feel like. It needs to be sad. Many people in the world are suffering.’’
Perspective. Why must we cross an ocean to find it?
Jay Mariotti, called “the most impacting Chicago sportswriter of the past quarter-century,’’ writes a weekly media column for Barrett Sports Media and regular sports columns for Substack while appearing on some of the 1,678,498 podcasts in production today. He’s an accomplished columnist, TV panelist and radio talk host. Living in Los Angeles, he gravitated by osmosis to film projects. Compensation for this column is donated to the Chicago Sun-Times Charity Trust.
Kevin Harlan is the Luckiest of the Lucky
“If you’re not tweaking, you’re not evolving; if you’re not evolving, you’re not getting better [and] if you’re not getting better, you’re getting worse.”
John Facenda, the legendary voice of NFL Films, helped shape the soundtrack of the National Football League as the sport burgeoned in popularity. His voice is known by most fans of the game and synonymous with the gridiron. The dulcet tones of Facenda compelled a producer for the Kansas City Chiefs pregame radio show on KCMO to send a note requesting that he voice the intro to the Sunday morning program. That was Kevin Harlan, a sophomore undergraduate student at the University of Kansas, working in the role after being asked to produce the show by Chiefs radio voice Wayne Laramie.
Harlan fondly remembers being presented with the idea to compile a three-hour radio pregame show followed by a two-hour postgame program, all utilizing the powerful, ostensibly boundless radio signal that reached about eight Midwestern states. As he did, he continued filling in for Kansas Jayhawks broadcaster Tom Hedrick, an opportunity he was promised by the broadcaster himself as he recruited him to attend the university. Initially, Harlan was deliberating between the University of Wisconsin and the University of Notre Dame, the latter of which had alumni Don Criqui whom he also admired. Hedrick, color commentator for the CBS Radio broadcast of Super Bowl I, presented him with an offer that he could simply not refuse though, and it led to more opportunities to hone his craft.
From the age of 7, Harlan had been infatuated by sports and familiar with the inner workings of the press box. His father, Bob, was the director of public relations for the St. Louis Cardinals and allowed his son to perambulate the corridors of the ballpark. Even though he did not realize the magnitude of commentators he would encounter, such as Lindsey Nelson, Vin Scully and Bob Prince, he was cognizant that they were important professionals in the sports media business. In fact, Harlan would frequently sit in the back of Jack Buck and Harry Caray’s broadcast booth with a bag of popcorn and a Coke just to listen to their call of the contest. The voice of Facenda became part of his consciousness a few years later, and work on projects such as “The Autumn Wind” inspired him to discover a career in broadcasting.
“I remember getting back from class and one of my roommates said, ‘Hey, some guy named John Facenda called you from NFL Films; he wants to talk to you,’” Harlan recalled. “I called him back and he was incredibly gracious. He said, ‘Kevin, I want to know if I can change this sentence and add even a couple of more things I’ve got in my mind?’ I said, ‘Yes, you can do anything.’”
While Harlan’s intonation and timbre are heard worldwide today, those within a 10-mile range were the only ones initially privy to his skillset. Notre Dame Academy, his high school, allowed him to be on the air from the age of 14 to call football games.
On top of that, his father had accepted a role to serve as the assistant general manager of the Green Bay Packers and worked his way to become the president and chief executive officer over an 18-year stretch. By the time he was in Kansas City working with the Chiefs, Harlan was aware of the power of the NFL and the extraordinary job with which he was being entrusted.
“[Facenda] sent me this reel-to-reel tape, and I could hear his different takes of the copy that I had sent him,” Harlan said. “At the end of the reel-to-reel tape, he finished [by] saying, ‘You’re listening to Chiefs Sunday on the Chiefs Radio Network,’ and we had this music bed, and there was a pause and he goes, ‘Now that’s a horse that I can ride,’ which meant he liked the copy; he liked the way that it sounded that he just read.”
By Harlan’s senior year of college, he was hosting Chiefs studio coverage, calling high school games around the state for WIBW and hosting a three-hour talk show on Sunday nights. Combined with his broadcasting and coursework at Kansas, Harlan’s schedule was jam-packed with broadcasting responsibilities, and his ability to seamlessly balance all of it is part of the reason he called Kansas City Kings basketball games at 21 years old.
While it was an obvious decision for Harlan to seize the opportunity, there was some pressure on him in being so young compared to veteran commentators. Bill King, Jim Durham and Joe Tait, voices of his childhood, were now among his broadcasting colleagues, and he was working alongside Hall of Fame center and former NBA champion Ed Macauley. When the team decided to move to Sacramento, Harlan had to choose whether or not he wanted to relocate or remain in Kansas City.
“I really had fallen in love with the area, and I really didn’t want to go to Sacramento, although I had a chance to tour the city with the team at the time, but [I] really wanted to stay in Kansas City,” Harlan said. “I started thinking, ‘Well, I better start looking around, and if all else fails, I can go and be a part of the Kings broadcast in some form or fashion.’”
By stroke of serendipity, Harlan was able to stay in the locale to call Chiefs games, a decision that was sealed following a trial broadcast with analyst and Hall of Fame quarterback Len Dawson. After the experiment, which was in the form of a Missouri spring football game, Dawson gave his unequivocal approval of Harlan as his new on-air partner, and one week later, he received word from team president Lamar Hunt that he had landed the job.
One October day in 1991, Kansas City quarterback Steve DeBerg led his team to a massive 33-6 victory over the Buffalo Bills during a prime-time Monday Night Football matchup on ABC. Harlan called the game on radio and remembers the stadium being filled with a vociferous crowd captivated by the action. After one sequence, Harlan members spontaneously saying, “Oh baby, what a play!,” simply reacting to the atmosphere and thinking nothing of it.
Throughout his career, he has never been one to adopt a catchphrase, but on that day, feedback on his exclamation was validated by fans in the parking lot celebrating the win. Calling into the postgame show he used to produce, the fans shouted, “Oh baby, what a play!” in unison, and unbeknownst to them, Harlan and his wife were listening as they tried to escape traffic.
“From that point on, that phrase caught and kind of rode the success that they had,” Harlan explained, “which eventually led to getting Joe Montana and Marcus Allen, and that was it.”
In 1989, the National Basketball Association was expanding to include the Orlando Magic and the Minnesota Timberwolves, both of whom would need commentators to call the games. Harlan was being courted by the Timberwolves. He and other members of the broadcast team would be tasked with growing the popularity of the league in the Minneapolis-St. Paul region.
While the opportunity to move back into calling NBA games was appealing, Harlan was not entirely sure that he wanted to take the job because he was content with his lifestyle and growing a family. As a result, he called NBA broadcasters Bob Costas and Marv Albert, both of whom emphasized the importance of taking the chance to move into calling games on television. At their behest, he decided to accept the offer, which meant flying back-and-forth between Minneapolis and Kansas City to retain his family life.
One day, Harlan received a call from NBC Sports chairman Dick Ebersol asking if he could fill in on a Sunday NFL game, giving him his first opportunity to be looked at by a national network. NBC Sports was impressed with his performance, granting him more network opportunities – including a two-year run with ESPN calling college football – before his first chance to call the NFL nationally on a regular basis.
Transitioning to predominantly focus on national work in the NFL was not on Harlan’s mind until he ran into Chiefs team president Carl Peterson and NFL Films president Steve Sabol before a game in Buffalo. As fortune would have it, they had just been talking about Harlan, which led Sabol to tell him that he had been asked by FOX Sports to give them who he thought were the top three NFL radio announcers. George Krieger, executive vice president at FOX Sports, had asked Albert a similar question, a query that prompted the broadcaster to recommend Harlan.
“On that roster was me, Kenny Albert, Joe Buck and Thom Brennaman,” Harlan said. “We were the four younger broadcasters in back of [Pat] Summerall and [Dick] Stockton; they wanted to build for the future…. I know the four of us took great pride after this big search because there was a lot of speculation at the time as to who FOX was going to hire to fill out their roster.”
The company launched the NFL on FOX in August 1994, shortly after Major League Baseball players officially went on a 232-day strike. Harlan was one of the first broadcasters to take the air and commenced a property currently in the midst of celebrating its 30th season.
Four years later, he moved to The NFL on CBS. It would not have been possible without the sacrifices his wife made for him and the lengths she went to in order to raise a family and establish a comfortable and healthy atmosphere at home.
“What she did on those many nights that I was gone so I could do something that I loved was an act of unselfishness that is beyond words and measure,” Harlan said. “I guarantee you that if things were not good at home and unhappy at home, it would affect the way I had navigated my career.”
Harlan has been calling two NFL games per week since 2009 when he took the job as the lead voice of Monday Night Football broadcasts on Westwood One. A key factor in being able to maintain such a lifestyle is in the contrasting means of dissemination, rendering variation in the way he prepares. In becoming more comfortable on CBS over the years, he realized that there is not as much time to contextualize and explain detailed stories behind every play and athlete.
Conversely, Harlan’s role on the radio is to inform listeners about what is transpiring on the field and subsequently set his analyst up for success. Harlan has worked with Hall of Fame quarterback Kurt Warner on the broadcast since 2018, which followed a 10-year run with Boomer Esiason, and he knows the challenges they face on a solely aural medium.
“My job is very edited,” Harlan said. “I come in loaded with all the appropriate stuff I need to have, but it’s skeletal compared to what my TV boards look like.”
After his games each week, Harlan reviews his outing and thinks about ways he can continue to improve going forward. Despite wanting to scrutinize over hundreds of minutiae within each broadcast and impugn certain decisions, he ultimately focuses on what is most essential.
“We all love the challenge of being the best that we can be, and that doesn’t mean there aren’t a couple tweaks here and there along the way,” Harlan said. “If you’re not tweaking, you’re not evolving; if you’re not evolving, you’re not getting better [and] if you’re not getting better, you’re getting worse.”
Once October comes around, Harlan juggles the addition of the NBA on TNT, where he has worked on a full-time basis since the 1997-98 season. The move into television that Costas and Albert cosigned was beginning to pay dividends for Harlan, who entered rarified air by serving as a national voice of two professional sports entities. He has enjoyed stability in his jobs for nearly three decades, something seldom attained within a media career, and considers himself fortunate to be in this position.
“TV is something I really never thought of,” Harlan expressed. “I loved radio – I grew up wanting to be in radio and was, and TV just kind of evolved very organically out of all my radio stuff, as it does for a lot of broadcasters.”
Albert retired from the NBA on TNT after the 2021 NBA playoffs, forcing TNT to have to make a decision as to who would serve as the new primary voice of the property. Harlan began to have chances to work with the lead broadcast team of Reggie Miller, Stan Van Gundy and Allie La Force, and today largely announces games on Tuesdays during the regular season. Last year, he called the Western Conference Finals between the Denver Nuggets and Los Angeles Lakers to conclude the network’s broadcast slate.
Yet Harlan did not genuinely listen to Albert until he became a colleague at TNT, although he was aware of his status as a revered broadcaster. Understanding that it is extremely difficult, if not impossible, to replace an announcer of his stature, Harlan seeks to bring his own approach to the role while honoring the history it garners.
Most professionals can control how to position themselves for success, whether that be through their talent, work ethic or demeanor, but Harlan also knows that much of it comes down to timing. He made sure to forewarn his kids about the challenges that come with working in sports media before any of them pursued a career in the field.
“‘What you’ve been able to be around is the luckiest of the lucky,’” Harlan said to his children. “This is a business which, more or less, is pretty hard to navigate and gets harder and harder by the day with a myriad of things you’re constantly going against.”
Three of Harlan’s children heeded his advice, but the fourth decided to chase her dreams anyway. Much like her father, Olivia Harlan Dekker found a mentor at the University of Georgia and worked to earn broadcast opportunities. The two made history last January when they became the first father-daughter duo to call an NFL playoff game, doing so together on Westwood One.
With the NBA’s television contracts set to expire following the 2024-25 season, there has been much conjecture as to which companies will garner portions of a new deal. The league is reportedly interested in adding digital and streaming elements to the package, perhaps an impetus for Warner Bros. Discovery launching a Bleacher Report-branded sports tier on Max and ESPN preparing a direct-to-consumer (DTC) interface.
“I think all of us are kind of excited, maybe a little bit nervous [in] knowing that we’ve got two more years to go doing our jobs,” Harlan said. “As someone very smart told me one time – my dad – [he] said, ‘If you’re looking ahead too much or you’re looking behind too much, you’re going to miss what matters most right now.’ What matters right now is the present and doing the best job you can do right now, and then let everything play out how it’s going to play out.”
While having chances to call marquee events is what most broadcasters desire, Harlan does not want to be avaricious in his pursuits. After all, he has called the NCAA Division I men’s basketball Final Four on numerous occasions for both television and radio amid other significant games. Moreover, he is preparing to work his 14th consecutive Super Bowl for Westwood One, the most consecutive of all time, and is eagerly anticipating the moment he steps into the broadcast booth at Allegiant Stadium in Las Vegas.
“We know how many millions of cars are on the roads at any given time at any given part of any day, and some people are just, for whatever reason, [unable to] get the game on their phone or tablet, and so they’ve got to listen to it,” Harlan said. “We’ve had soldiers overseas that have listened in outposts in pretty, pretty remote parts of the world, and the only way they know the Super Bowl is to listen to our broadcast.”
As the pregame countdown approaches 0:00, Harlan will feel a gust of “The Autumn Wind” and begin delivering the call for the most prominent game of the season. Until then though, he is enjoying the journey each week calling games for CBS Sports and Westwood One, along with the NBA on TNT. When Sunday, Feb. 11, 2024 arrives, he will be prepared and enthusiastic to serve as an invaluable emissary tasked with translating the game masterfully composed on the gridiron.
“[Westwood One has] got the history and the know-how and the leadership to navigate those new ways of broadcasting and delivering,” Harlan said, “and for them to select me and put me in that role is an honor which I can’t even describe…. I go back to what I wanted to do when I first got in the business and how lucky I am to be in that chair with that headset on.”
Derek Futterman is a contributing editor and sports media reporter for Barrett Sports Media. Additionally, he has worked in a broad array of roles in multimedia production – including on live game broadcasts and audiovisual platforms – and in digital content development and management. He previously interned for Paramount within Showtime Networks, wrote for the Long Island Herald and served as lead sports producer at NY2C. To get in touch, find him on Twitter @derekfutterman.
Terry Francona Gave the Media Everything it Wanted in a Manager
“He played the media like Clapton plays the axe. There were no outbursts, dumb statements, or public humiliations.”
He lacks Tony LaRussa’s hair, Tommy Lasorda’s wit, and Joe Torre’s Kleenex bill, but Cleveland Guardians manager Terry Francona deserves some props for what he is, quite simply one of the best managers in baseball history and perhaps the best at handling the media. Francona is retiring from managing after this, his 23rd season as an MLB skipper.
After a star-crossed playing career, Francona’s first managerial stint was in Philadelphia from 1997 to 2000. His Phillies clubs never finished higher than third place, but the experience with a tough media even tougher fans prepared him for his next challenge, one that will eventually lead him to Cooperstown.
With all due respect to Francona’s last 11 seasons at the helm in Cleveland, his claim to fame and ticket to immortality was purchased in his 8 seasons as manager of the Red Sox. In that time span, Francona withstood the pressure and pain of a curse, clubhouse malaises, personal life rumors, and the general pain and suffering akin to being a high profile sports personality in Boston.
Remember that Francona arrived in the Hub in 2004 at the apex of the misery and anger over the team’s 86 year World Series title drought. In truth, it wasn’t a drought, it was a desert speckled with bad decisions, racist claims, and kick-in-the-gut defeats.
In fact, the team had just endured one of those boots to the mid-section just weeks before Francona was hired when they lost Game 7 of the ALCS to the hated Yankees on Aaron Boone’s extra innings walk off home run. That game, and his decision to leave Pedro Martinez in the ballgame with a high pitch count, resulted in manager Grady Little’s exit.
The truth is that the Red Sox fired Little because he simply wasn’t their kind of guy. GM Theo Epstein and the organization were waist deep in the Billy Beane analytics barrel having hired stat guru Bill James as a senior advisor. Little made decisions based more on people than printouts.
After his four-year losing stint in Philly, Francona was about as respected by the Boston media as Vanilla Ice at the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. I was covering the team then and dismissed Francona merely as the bait that boated Curt Schilling in free agency. Schilling had played for Francona with the Phillies.
We were all wrong. Just a few months after his hiring, Francona ended an eternal curse, tamed the brutal Boston media, shrewdly combined youth and experience on the field, created chemistry with a $100 million roster, and kept some of the most unique personalities in the game happy and healthy. He won 1296 games and two World Series in Boston and is deemed by many to be the team’s best manager ever.
Francona’s greatest strength was his handling of the media. Make no mistake. Boston is the toughest place to manage in all of sports. With a media horde that prefers hangings to harmony and a fan base that can be as lethal as they are loyal, every day is a season unto itself. In Boston, one loss is Armageddon.
Francona was nothing short of exemplary in his weekly radio stints on then kingpin station Sportsradio WEEI and other Boston media outlets. He played the media like Clapton plays the axe. There were no outbursts, dumb statements, or public humiliations. He protected his players, took the blame, and effortlessly sidestepped the many silly questions he was posed.
Francona also did a great job in the national spotlight. When he managed the American League in the 2005 All-Star Game, his in-game interview was sparkling, unlike National League skipper Tony LaRussa who was about as animated as yogurt.
In Boston, Francona developed into a media master, adeptly handling tough postgame questions and setting the tempo for his radio weekly calls. He deserves credit for being the anti-Bill Belichick, completely accessible but not overly ingratiating to the media.
At the heart of Francona’s handling of the media was his utter regard and protection of his players. In Boston, he did postgame interviews with NESN in a segment called “Terry’s Take.” While the team’s home network reporters seldom threw hardball queries at Francona, when they did, he never threw any player, coach, or team executive under the proverbial bus.
WEEI’s popular afternoon program at the time, the Dale and Holley Show with Dale Arnold and Michael Holley, became must-hear radio because they actually did consistently ask tough questions to Francona about roster moves, player issues, and strategy.
While they did so without becoming insulting or distasteful, Francona was, at times, audibly upset at the questions and shot back with his own vim and vigor making for fascinating radio.
Francona always maintained a level of class and dignity even when the media did not. He never let insulting insinuations or idiotic innuendo define him.
Francona’s time in Boston ended ingloriously in 2011. His club blew a seemingly insurmountable September lead in the standings and missed the playoffs. At the time, Francona took the heat for the unexpected collapse, but that team featured the indomitable David Ortiz, a young veteran MVP in Dustin Pedroia, and veterans like Adrian Gonzalez, Carl Crawford, Tim Wakefield, and Josh Beckett.
Adding to the dismal end were reports that Beckett, Jon Lester, and John Lackey were often see drinking beers, playing video games, and snacking on fried chicken in the clubhouse during September games.
The Boston media huffed, puffed, and damn near blew the Green Monster down, but where were Ortiz, Pedroia, and Wakefield, three players lauded for their leadership, as all this was happening? They got no heat, while Francona got fried. In the end, he left Boston diplomatically saying that perhaps a new managerial voice was needed.
This is the essence of the public Terry Francona – professional in victory and levelheaded in defeat. His postgame chats are models of consistency and his press conferences reveal the game’s nuances without sharing family secrets.
While the aforementioned Belichick treats the media like IRS agents, Francona kills them with cooperation. He massages their needy egos, but in the end, gives them nothing more than what he wants to give them.
NFL coaches Andy Reid and Mike Tomlin tend to tell the media far too much about injuries and prognoses. Francona knows when to clam up or toss in an interview-ending cliché. He is stern and unafraid to justifiably scoff at the often inane queries he faces.
As he walks away from the dugout for presumably the last time, here is some long overdue credit to Terry Francona, a superb leader and standup guy who truly puts the “man” in manager.
John Molori is a weekly columnist for Barrett Sports Media. He has previously contributed to ESPNW, Patriots Football Weekly, Golf Content Network, Methuen Life Magazine, and wrote a syndicated Media Blitz column in the New England region, which was published by numerous outlets including The Boston Metro, Providence Journal, Lowell Sun, and the Eagle-Tribune. His career also includes fourteen years in television as a News and Sports Reporter, Host, Producer working for Continental Cablevision, MediaOne, and AT&T. He can be reached on Twitter @MoloriMedia.
Mike Golic Jr. Is Always Going to be an Undrafted Free Agent
“I approach every job wanting to put my absolute best foot forward, wanting to show and not tell people that I’m going to work hard, that I’m going to be here for more than just coasting along off the name.”
There are a lot of conversations in sports about overhype. “This team is overhyped”, “that player is overhyped.” There isn’t nearly as much time spent on those that are underhyped. (The word even sounds wrong because we hardly ever hear it.) Mike Golic Jr. is a great example of underhyped.
The conversation typically revolves around how he initially broke into the broadcasting business instead of how hard he’s worked or all of the things he’s accomplished along the way. It isn’t, “Man, this guy is good at what he does.” It’s usually, “Yeah, but it’s because his dad is Mike Golic.”
There are a lot of famous fathers out there whose kids didn’t do jack because they were either lazy or untalented. I don’t care nearly as much about how you get your opportunities; what you actually do with them is what matters the most. Do you think Golic Jr. would still be on the air if he wasn’t any good? No. So wouldn’t it make more sense to focus on the here and now instead of how his journey began?
Golic Jr. has made the most of his chances. He’s got a brand new morning show, GoJo and Golic, on the DraftKings Network. He’s also calling college football games on radio each Saturday night for Learfield. In our conversation below, Golic Jr. talks about the blessing it is to still be able to team up with his dad. He also talks about how he deals with trolls and how his dad has the ability to delete beer. Enjoy!
Brian Noe: How would you describe what your new show on DraftKings is like?
Mike Golic Jr.: There’s definitely some gambling elements in there, but they were pretty clear up front, they just wanted us to do a show. They didn’t want us to do anything that didn’t come naturally to us. For me and for my dad, we’re aware of the gambling space, we’ve seen it just become more and more of how to explain sports. The same way fantasy football was just a more detailed way to analyze sports with a different end in mind. As opposed to just watching and consuming, you’re trying to get something out of it. This is kind of the same thing, but it just creates a smarter fan who’s looking for a little bit of different insight at certain points.
It doesn’t change the job, if anything it just gives us a different way to frame things. You get to frame a matchup a different way, you get to frame a player’s production in a little bit of a different way. I think that’s more of how we use it as a different entry point into the same conversation that we would have always had about sports, which is the one my dad’s been having for over two decades on people’s TVs and radios and the one that I’m trying to now get into doing more and more after seven, eight years, whatever it’s been.
BN: Do you still hear stupid comments like, oh, it’s just because of your dad that blah, blah, blah? Do you still hear that stuff?
MGJ: Yeah, oh yeah, there’s always going to be people that do that. I understand it. I get how people are going to perceive that. I understand the conversation around nepotism and how I fit into that.
I’ve had my stock answer over the years about how I’ve approached that and that hasn’t changed. I approach every job wanting to put my absolute best foot forward, wanting to show and not tell people that I’m going to work hard, that I’m going to be here for more than just coasting along off the name.
I want to be good at this. I want to be a value-add to the shows that I work on. But again, that’s on me to show and not tell because no amount of telling will ever change anyone’s mind about that. Quite honestly, that’s not really my goal. My goal was always do the job in a way that I can be proud of, approach it in a way and with work habits that I can be proud of, and reflect my dad who stuck his neck out for me at the beginning of my career.
BN: I’m curious, man, because if I were in the same shoes, I’d want to take the high road, but it’d be really tempting to take the low road. When there’s that one troll, who on that one day says that one thing about your dad, and you just want to say kiss my ass, dude. How have you handled it over the years, and even now, when you still hear some of that garbage?
MGJ: Yeah, I’m unfortunately painfully online as some people who are reading this might know. So you see a lot of it. I’ve done a better job with a lot of the tools on social media of filtering out most of the comments like that. I think also I started doing this when I was 26 and I’m going to turn 34 this week. Part of it’s just also come with being a little more comfortable in my own skin.
Most of the slights that we end up responding to are the ones that we might feel like in an honest moment have a little more truth to them than we’re comfortable with, or hit close to home on something. At least in my experience, that’s been the things that tend to strike a nerve the most. When I was young and just starting and didn’t really feel like I had my feet under me as far as being a broadcaster, there were times when it would bother me. There were times when it feels good to go and dunk on somebody on Twitter and have fun with it and let them know that you can clap back and do all that too.
Now it’s to the point where most of the time I’ll look at an interaction like that and it’s like, is it worth giving someone any portion of my afternoon for what this reaction is going to be? Because it’s usually like a potato chip, you’re never just going to do it once. You end up going back and forth and then you’re down a rabbit hole with Johnny Buncha Numbers and for what? To prove a point to a person that doesn’t care about hearing your point anyway?
We all fall victim to it. Usually it’s when I have a lot of time in airports and I end up sitting there bored and tired that I’ll still pop off at the mouth every once in a while. But in general it’s just kind of a losing value prop.
BN: I hear you, it’s so true. That’s the stupid stuff you have to go through — that’s with anything in life — but the good stuff, you’re working with your dad, man. How do you describe what that feels like to work with your dad each day?
MGJ: Yeah, and to get to do what I do because of my dad still. We go back to the nepotism, I’ve never shied away. The reason I got my foot in the door was because of my dad; I owe all of this to him. I’ve never begrudged that, to do so would be dishonest, and quite frankly, disrespectful. So to get to do that with him though is awesome because it’s the same relationship we’ve had since I was a kid. It’s just positioned outward now.
It is nice every day to get to talk to my dad, get to talk to my parents a lot more than most people. Because of the job, I get to see them more than I probably would too with some of the things that we’ve done together, whether it’s off site, or just in general. I think one of the coolest things was also just seeing how other people — we’ve talked about the nepotism people, but there was also just as many people who would send notes, especially like my dad’s sign off on Golic and Wingo.
I said what I thought was going to be very composed and ended up being a very tear-filled thank you to dad for everything. The amount of notes we got off that from other people who in different jobs, in different walks of life that had the chance to work with their son or daughter, or work with their mother or father and how they saw parts of their relationship in the way that our relationship was.
It’s like any parent-child relationship, we know each other’s best strengths and where to put the ball on that stuff. We also know what ticks the other off a fair amount. So every once in a while, you can venture into those categories.
I remember Trey Wingo used to just watch me and dad argue about the dumbest stuff. He would just put his hands behind his head and lean back because he knew that segment was going to be the easiest thing in the world. To hear from people who also have had the chance to work with a loved one and work with a relative like that, who saw little bits of their own life in some of those interactions was always pretty cool.
BN: What’s something that touches a nerve for your dad?
MGJ: Dad and technology. It’s so different now because we do so much of this stuff remotely. Dad’s got the camera set up there and the laptop and all these different things that he’s got to connect into. For years, when he was doing radio, he just walked into the studio and hit the on button. He was good to go. Someone was going to help with everything else. My dad can do all this stuff. I have more empathy for my mom now at home, who’s had to deal with my dad and his iPad for years.
My dad watches more TV than any person on earth. If you know a show, he’s seen it and he’s seen the prequel, he’s seen the movie they made after the series, all of it. When he goes and takes a bath, he’ll sit with his iPad and he’ll watch his shows. He’s got all the passwords to Netflix and everything like that. But the minute he forgets them, he melts down, doesn’t do anything himself and just hands it to my mom and asks her to fix it, hands it to one of us and asks us to fix it.
There’s some of that, that shows up when we’re doing the show where if anything technologically happens, I’ve got to work through all that stuff. I’ve got to come in and be IT for dad because he can do it, I just feel like he doesn’t want to be bothered with it sometimes. I’ll sometimes look at him like, “come on, man, you know how to do this. You’ve been turning this on and doing the podcast from home for a while, don’t play dumb with me.”
BN: How about for you? What’s something that touches a nerve?
MGJ: That’s a good question. I don’t know if I’ve done the self scout nearly well enough. What would tick me off?
The easy one being a Notre Dame person is the conference stuff. Anytime that conversation comes up when people want to do the “join a conference thing,” for some reason after a while I’ll usually reach a certain point where I’m just like, “alright, these are all the same dumb reasons I’ve been combating my entire life.”
No one’s presented a new argument to me as to why all of a sudden this conference affiliation makes more sense now, or there’s some moral case for it, or competitive case for it now, that I haven’t already heard, digested, and had to rebut before. That one gets a little bit old. I think if someone really wanted to kind of get me going, that would probably be a good way to do it.
BN: What’s the most fun you’ve had in your career?
MGJ: I’d say it’s twofold. It always involves a live audience. There’s still no substitute for being able to reach out and touch people. With Golic and Wingo, when I was fortunate to get to latch on to what dad and Trey were doing at the end there, we went and traveled the show a bunch. I remember we went to Columbus, and we did the show at a Hofbräuhaus. The show was 5-9 Central Time. We’re getting in there at 4:20 and the thing is already set up, people are already in there, people are already drinking. So we’re like, “oh, okay, it’s game time in here.”
Right before the end of the show, a bunch of guys that had been egging me on the whole time had me come over and take a shot with them. When we got done, my dad just turns around and goes, beer me, and they bring him over one of those big tankers of beer. My dad’s pretty good at a lot of stuff, he’s a good natural athlete; chugging beers is like his specialty, even getting near 60 years old.
Watching my dad delete that beer in front of a crowd of onlookers that were all cheering, that was a lot of fun. That environment was just really cool. We had a great road crew of so many people that helped make those shows happen. Anything with a team environment like that was always really fun.
Then on the college football side, the Duke’s Mayo Bowl was like the culmination of one of the most fun seasons I’ve ever been a part of. Anish Shroff was the play-by-play, Taylor McGregor was our sideline reporter. They’re still two of my closest friends in the industry to this day. I’ve got the group chat and talk to them every day. That season, we were all just really on the same page. We all trusted each other. We thought we did a good job trying to go out and tell the story and do these games the right way, but we like to have fun.
When we got to the Duke’s Mayo Bowl, we all recognized what a ridiculous opportunity it was. Three and a half hours later, a couple of things eaten in mayonnaise and a few viral clips that ticked off the entire country of Australia and R&B legend Dionne Warwick, we realized, alright, that was fun because it was the culmination of trust and camaraderie that we had built up with each other all season long.
Again, in that team environment where you’re going, you’re having to work together through live situations on the fly, you’re helping each other in the preparation leading up. All that stuff was just really cool and they were great teammates. It made the job really easy and really fun every week.
BN: Are you a goal guy? Do you look at anything that you would like to accomplish in the next few years or at some point in your broadcasting career that you’d say, man, that’d be really cool if I was able to do that?
MGJ: No, I’ve always been really bad about goals. I think part of it’s like the old training camp mindset. I’m perennially going to be an undrafted free agent who just wants to know — I always joked at ESPN, every day my badge worked was a great day.
I work with people that I enjoy and appreciate and respect, get to have great teammates like that. I already get to cover so many of the best events in sports. I’ve gotten to go to the national championship for college football — a game that I played in — like seven or eight straight times now, which is a dream every year. Getting out and covering the Super Bowl. Doing the Nathan’s Famous Hot Dog Contest.
I’ve gotten to go all over the map and I appreciate ESPN so much for the opportunities they afforded me, and I owe my employers now at DraftKings and Learfield a lot for that. But no, I’ve always been bad at goals. I want to keep doing this. I want to keep finding someone that’s willing to let me do this and hopefully really good people that I enjoy doing it with.